The recycled content of steel
Some people believe that specifying a minimum recycled content (MRC) in new products will increase the recycling of products that have reached the end of their useful life. This is true for materials that would otherwise be incinerated or go to landfill and which can be recycled or re-used, e.g. glass and plastic. But it is not true for steel. Worldwide, over 80% of products made from steel are recycled at the end of their useful life. This and other factors in the market mean that MRC is not relevant to steel.
How recycled content is achieved
Basically, steel makers recycle scrap steel either by re-melting it in the electric arc furnace method (EAF) or by mixing it with molten iron ore in the BF-BOS1 method. The amount of scrap used in these methods constitutes the recycled content. EAF can use up to 100% scrap; BF-BOS uses 10-25% scrap, and the overall average content for steel produced in the UK is 55%.
With the present configuration of furnaces in the world today, 35% of steel is made by the EAF method and the remainder by BF-BOS.
Two factors limit the opportunity to increase the recycled content of steel. The first is the increasing demand for steel and the second is the long life of products made from steel. At the moment, the total demand for steel could not be met solely by recycled scrap. Much more steel is wanted than could be made with scrap alone and not enough scrap arises from end-of-life products. Therefore, most new steel has to be made by the BF-BOS method.
It is better to concentrate on improving recycling rates than to specify higher recycled content in steel.
MRC will not increase the amount of steel recycled
As mentioned above, worldwide recycling of steel is over 80%. In the UK, for example, 94% of steel used in construction is recovered. Increasing the demand for steel with a high recycled content is not likely to increase recovery, but is more likely to drive up prices.
If a designer specifies high recycled content in a well-meaning effort to reduce environmental impact, it may stimulate the market to redirect feedstock towards designated products and away from products where steel product manufacture and recycling are most economical.
Such demand would needlessly transport scrap around the world, using extra resources and creating emissions.
The proportion of end-of-life products that are recycled—over 80% in the case of steel—is the important factor rather than a recycled content which is impossible.
Materials that are 100% recyclable again and again, such as steel, already possess an important characteristic of sustainability. They provide the needs of today’s society and at the same time retain materials for use by future generations.
End-of-life recyclability focuses on the design and management of products and on their disposal and recycling at the end of their useful life, which supports sustainability.
100% recyclable strip steel, with a recycled content that re-uses most of the scrap arising worldwide from end-of-life products, does this.
1 BF-BOS: Blast furnace-Basic oxygen steelmaking
- Body & closures
- Chassis & suspension
- Automotive Services
- Interior and trim